HAIKOU, China — The Chinese government released the 24 crew members of a U.S. spy plane today, ending an 11-day standoff with a carefully balanced compromise in which both governments backed down a bit but still could claim a measure of victory.
The crew members lifted off about 7:30 a.m. local time from an airfield here on Hainan island in a chartered jetliner bound for Guam, where the plane landed 4 1/2 hours later. There the Americans were to board a military aircraft bound for Hawaii for debriefings and medical checkups.
"They're doing fine, they're smiling," said Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, who escorted the crew members onto the chartered plane in Hainan. "We're just glad this particular incident is over. That's all our job was--to get the crew out. They're gone. We're going to finish our business and go home."
The breakthrough that ended President Bush's first foreign policy challenge came after Washington said in a letter that it was "very sorry" both for the likely death of a Chinese pilot after the collision of his fighter jet with the U.S. aircraft over the South China Sea and for the spy plane's unauthorized landing at a Chinese military air base.
The letter stopped just short of the formal apology that China has demanded since the April 1 incident. However, it went much further than the original U.S. position, which was that Washington owed no apology for the incident.
A senior U.S. official said the impasse was broken when the Bush administration agreed to insert "very" before "sorry" in the letter from U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan. Every word in the letter was negotiated by ranking officials on both sides.
Shortly after receiving the letter, Tang announced that the crew would be released on what he called "humanitarian grounds."
The letter said the two sides will meet beginning next Wednesday to discuss the incident and the return of the U.S. aircraft, an indication that the badly damaged spy plane will not be released for at least a week.
The 21 men and three women from the U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane were driven to the airfield here in minivans equipped with tinted windows, escorted by a caravan of police vehicles. Two decoy vans headed in the opposite direction.
Security Staff Guards Crew's Route
Uniformed and plainclothes Chinese security staff blocked off traffic and stood guard along the entire 25-mile drive from the No. 1 Southern Air Fleet Guest House in downtown Haikou to the Meilan airport.
After a four-hour layover, the Americans were scheduled to depart Guam in an Air Force C-17 transport plane on an eight-hour flight to Hawaii, where they will spend several days in debriefings. The C-17 was expected to arrive at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, at 6:30 a.m. local time today.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department had sent a 13-member "repatriation team" to China to accompany the crew members. The group included psychotherapists and physicians, as well as intelligence officers, so that the crew debriefing could begin.
Quigley said officials wanted to begin the debriefings as soon as possible, so that memories of the accident would remain fresh.
The Pentagon hopes to have the 24 crew members back in the continental United States by Sunday. They will be flown back to their home station, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington.
Break in the Impasse Came Early in Morning
The break in the long standoff came early Wednesday. Bush was still in bed when National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice telephoned just after 5:30 a.m. EDT to tell him about the deal, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.
"The president said, 'Good,' leaned over and told [First Lady] Laura that, 'It looks like the matter is going to be resolved,' " Fleischer said.
Bush then headed down to the Oval Office. At 8:25 a.m. he announced the resolution of the dispute with China before taking a scheduled trip to Charlotte, N.C., where he touted his education agenda at a suburban middle school. Later in the day, he addressed thousands of supporters at East Carolina University in Greenville.
"This has been a difficult situation for both our countries," Bush said of the impasse that brought relations between Washington and Beijing to their lowest point in years.
"I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of a Chinese pilot," he added. "Our prayers are with his wife and his child."
A massive search by Chinese authorities has so far produced no sign of the missing airman, Lt. Cmdr. Wang Wei. The 33-year-old pilot bailed out of his F-8 fighter after it collided with the lumbering, propeller-driven EP-3, which was on an intelligence-gathering mission about 65 miles off Hainan.
The collision sent the Chinese jet plunging into the sea and the U.S. aircraft into a 5,000-foot free fall before its crew regained control and made an emergency landing at Lingshui military air base on Hainan.